This page explains for English language learners the difficulty of euphemisms and the language of political correctness.


A euphemism (from the Greek words eu = well and pheme = speak ) is a word or expression that is used when people want to find a polite or less direct way of talking about difficult or embarrassing topics like death or the bodily functions.

Most people, for example, would find it very difficult to say in plain language that they have arranged for their sick old dog to be killed. They would soften the pain by saying: We had Fido put down or We had Fido put to sleep. Many people prefer to call someone plain than ugly, or cuddly rather than fat.

As such, euphemisms are an important part of every language, but it seems that English has an ever-growing number of them. The non-native speaker not only has to make sense of the euphemisms he hears, he also has to learn which euphemisms are appropriate in any particular situation.

Examples of euphemisms

He might be aware that his American friend needs to use the toilet when she asks where the bathroom (or restroom, or comfort station) is, but he is less likely to guess that his English friend has the same need when he says he has to see a man about a dog.

He might have learned, for example, that in the family way is a euphemism for pregnant. If he says to his boss, however: Congratulations! I hear your wife is in the family way, he would be using an expression that is too familiar for the circumstances.

Schools are full of euphemisms. For example, the special lessons given to students who are having difficulties in their school subjects are often given names such as Study Center or Academic Workshop.

Teachers rightly do not want to offend students or parents by being too blunt or direct, and usually choose a softer word or expression to convey the same message. For this reason, school reports often contain euphemisms such as: He is not working to his full potential or He has a rather relaxed attitude to his work (= he is lazy), She is unable to concentrate in class (= she is disruptive), He has strong opinions about everything and is not afraid to voice them (= he is loud and arrogant).

Political correctness

Typical of many recently-coined euphemisms are the words and expressions that try to avoid giving offence to various minority groups or unfortunate individuals. People who have severe learning difficulties are sometimes called intellectually-challenged, and those with a physical handicap are referred to as differently-abled.

Poor people are called needy, under-privileged, disadvantaged or economically deprived. Poor countries have in turn been called underdeveloped, developing, emergent, Third World - all in an effort to retain the meaning without causing offence or being patronising.

The struggle over the past 10-20 years to find an acceptable way to refer to African-Americans is further evidence of the increased sensitivity that we now have to the power of language. This sensitivity is often referred to as political correctness.


Euphemisms are used when talking about difficult or sensitive topics. But since euphemisms tend to vary across the different dialects of English and to change over time, they can be very challenging for English language learners.


To test your knowledge of the English language, have a look at the following euphemisms and see if you can explain them.

  • senior citizen
  • law-enforcement officer
  • undertaker
  • collateral damage
  • pro-choice
  • white meat
  • adult video
  • economical with the truth
  • tired and emotional
  • person with a visual impairment
  • substance abuser
  • downsizing
  • Where can I wash my hands?
  • senior citizen - old person
  • law-enforcement officer - policeman
  • undertaker - a person or firm whose job it is to dispose of the bodies of people who have died (The direct German translation of the term undertaker is Unternehmer. It is interesting that the German word means businessman or entrepreneur; it has not taken on the euphemistic meaning of the English counterpart.)
  • collateral damage* - this is the term given to the unintended damage incurred in a military action; for example, the killing of civilians in bombing attacks on strategic city targets.
  • pro-choice - describes person who is a supporter of a woman's right to have an abortion (opponents of abortion call themselves pro-life )
  • white meat - the meat that comes from the breast of a chicken
  • adult movie - pornographic movie
  • economical with the truth - someone who is economical with the truth is a liar
  • tired and emotional - drunk
  • person with a visual impairment - a blind person. The intention of this euphemism is to stress that the blind person is a person - who happens to have a visual disability. He or she is not defined by the disability. The term blind person, on the other hand, is thought to place the blindness at the center of the person's existence. And for this reason it has become unacceptable to some. (It is interesting, however, that some blind people object to term, not least because it muddles the distinction between the fully blind and people who have a more minor visual disability.)
  • substance abuser - a drug addict
  • downsizing - reducing the size and wages bill of a company by sacking employees
  • Where can I wash my hands? - Where is the toilet?

* As I noted above, many euphemisms have been coined to avoid offending sensitive people or discriminating against unfortunate individuals or underprivileged minority groups. In my opinion these are acceptable reasons for deploying a euphemism.

Much less acceptable are euphemisms like collateral damage or the odious Final Solution (Endlösung - i.e. the murder of Jews in Nazi Germany) and the more recent ethnic cleansing (to describe the attempt to clear parts of the former Yugoslavia of a particular national group by terrorising and killing them). The purpose of these euphemisms is not to avoid offending people but to deceive them.

Unfortunately, some of the new euphemisms (particularly those emanating from the USA) have been rather silly or unnecessary. And this has given right-wing commentators the chance to attack the whole notion of political correctness. (Two of the sillier euphemisms, in my opinion, are vertically challenged - to describe a short person; and sanitary engineer - for a janitor or Hausmeister (German))

There are interactive quizzes on euphemisms in the Vocabulary: Other vocabulary groups drop-down menu on the Vocabulary index.